Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Other Way Home 

We were struck by the following statistic in Harper's January Index:
Phone number of the G.I. Rights Hotline, a nongovernmental service for U.S. military personnel: 800-394-9544

Estimated number of calls the line received last year [2004] from soldiers seeking a way out of the military: 34,800
That number represents a 20% increase over the 2003 figure quoted in a Dan Frosch article published last spring at Alternet:
According to the GI Rights Hotline, a coalition of advocacy groups that offer confidential counseling and legal advice to American troops, thousands of soldiers have called its offices inquiring about conscientious objector status since the war began. In fact, say two leaders of the GI Rights Hotline, the situation is virtually out of control.

Teresa Panepinto, GI Rights program coordinator for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) -- part of the GI Rights Hotline -- says her Oakland office fielded 29,000 calls from soldiers in 2003, both from those awaiting deployment and from those currently in Iraq. The majority of the calls were from soldiers trying to navigate a way out of the military, with 22 percent of them inquiring about the consequences of going AWOL and 13 percent asking about conscientious objector discharges. Judging from phone call intake this year, Panepinto says, it's already clear that the numbers are getting higher . . . .

The current conflict in Iraq is provoking a new movement of conscientious objectors for two reasons, says McNeil. A sweeping 'stop-loss' decree, authorized by the Army on Nov. 13 and designed to stabilize an over-exerted fighting force, prevents soldiers from retiring or leaving their units 90 days before deployment and 90 days after returning home. Reservists and National Guard soldiers in particular have been affected as they are shifted out of Iraq and then re-deployed within the allotted 90 days. As a result, says McNeil, men and women accustomed to serving one weekend a month and two weeks a year are spending most of the year in Iraq, separated from their families and fighting an increasingly chaotic and dangerous war.

The second variable has to do with the hellishness of this war itself. More and more soldiers, no matter how tough their training or elite their unit, are finding the brutality of urban battle coupled with the murky justification for invading Iraq as reason enough to stop fighting . . . .

[A]nother surefire sign of the intense unhappiness many soldiers experience towards fighting in Iraq is the high suicide rate among those stationed there. The Pentagon has acknowledged that 22 soldiers killed themselves in Iraq last year and the Army dispatched a mental-health assessment team last September to investigate. The
results of that report are expected sometime within the next few weeks.

Nancy Lessin, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out and herself the mother of a Marine who returned from Iraq last May, confirms that her organization is working with numerous soldiers and families of soldiers dealing with depression and suicide.

"We're seeing this because people are being deployed for the second or third time and also because soldiers who believed that this war was needed in the beginning have come around to see that it's based on lies," said Lessin, whose group organized a massive peace march in Fayetteville, North Carolina on March 20.
That grim assessment is echoed by a number of military advocates interviewed for a recent NYT story about long-term mental-health consequences of the war. Psychiatric professionals at understaffed and underfunded veterans' hospitals are bracing for a "flood" of emotionally-battered vets, many of whom "are going to need help for the next 35 years":
An Army study shows that about one in six soldiers in Iraq report symptoms of major depression, serious anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, a proportion that some experts believe could eventually climb to one in three, the rate ultimately found in Vietnam veterans. Because about one million American troops have served so far in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Pentagon figures, some experts predict that the number eventually requiring mental health treatment could exceed 100,000 . . . .

''I have a very strong sense that the mental health consequences are going to be the medical story of this war,'' said Dr. Stephen C. Joseph, who served as the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs from 1994 to 1997.

What was planned as a short and decisive intervention in Iraq has become a grueling counterinsurgency that has put American troops into sustained close-quarters combat on a scale not seen since the Vietnam War. Psychiatrists say the kind of fighting seen in the recent retaking of Falluja -- spooky urban settings with unlimited hiding places; the impossibility of telling Iraqi friend from Iraqi foe; the knowledge that every stretch of road may conceal an explosive device -- is tailored to produce the adrenaline-gone-haywire reactions that leave lasting emotional scars . . . .

Through the end of September, the Army had evacuated 885 troops from Iraq for psychiatric reasons, including some who had threatened or tried suicide. But those are only the most extreme cases. Often, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder do not emerge until months after discharge.

''During the war, they don't have the leisure to focus on how they're feeling,'' said Sonja Batten, a psychologist at the Baltimore veterans hospital. ''It's when they get back and find that their relationships are suffering and they can't hold down a job that they realize they have a problem.''
A selection of links from the G.I. Rights Hotline website:
Whether you are in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines, we can help with military discharges, such as:We can help if you are AWOL or UA.

We can help if you are experiencing hazing, harassment or discrimination, or if you have been a victim of sexual assault.

Learn how to help members of the military with discharges using Helping Out: A Guide to Military Discharges and GI Rights.

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